Dr John O’Brien-Bell’s first exposure to medicine was as a young child making house calls with his family physician father, whose practice was based in a working-class area of Birmingham, England. John grew up during the turmoil of the Great Depression and was just 10 years old when World War II broke out. At a young age, he observed patients suffering from illnesses such as polio and tuberculosis and saw the serious impact of poverty on patients in need of care. His father died prematurely of tuberculosis, leaving his mother as a young widow. A positive result of such difficult childhood experiences led to his interest in medicine, which he chose as a career. He graduated from London’s prestigious Westminster Medical School in 1956.
After 10 years working under the British NHS, John immigrated to Canada in 1966. He grew to love his adopted province and country, and settled in Surrey, BC. After his arrival in Canada, he began working as an assistant physician in New Westminster. He later accepted an invitation to formally join and practise with Dr Geoff Parker-Sutton in 1967.
It is not surprising, considering world events at the time, that his earlier years in England led him to develop an interest in politics. After settling in BC, he served as an alderman in Surrey, was a campaign manager for an MP, and even ran for a seat in the BC provincial legislature. He later shifted those interests to the equally (some believe more) challenging field of medical politics.
In the 1970s, John was also the editor of a doctors’ provincial newspaper, the BCMA News, and later the Western Medical News. He helped rekindle the then BC Medical Association when, as a key member of the so-called “reform group,” it took on and challenged what it called “the establishment.” Fortunately for our profession, the two groups eventually reconciled, and the result was that our profession became stronger and more united. John went on to serve as president of the then BCMA from 1986 to 1987, and president of the Canadian Medical Association from 1988 to 1989. His goals for his patients and the medical profession were emphasized during both terms and echoed those of Canada’s 1964 Hall Commission: “the highest possible health-care, freedom of choice, and a free and self-governing profession.”
By the time John began his term as CMA president, his practice had grown to include Drs Tom Wong, Glenn Bowlsby, and Janet Bowlsby. Their support helped him balance his CMA duties with his practice. However, John continued to serve his own patients at every opportunity and continued to do 8-hour emergency shifts at Surrey Memorial on a weekly basis. When asked about his availability for interviews as president, he told reporters and journalists that he was busy with his patients once he left home. He gave out his home telephone number, telling them, “The best time to call is around 7 a.m., before I’ve left the house.”
John was my friend. We corresponded and spoke often. We often went for lunch to chat about medicine, politics, and the world. He was a very active man, and an active runner into his 80s. He also continued to see patients (as a locum tenens) into his mid-80s. Like many others I am a better person for having known and learned from him. Leaders like him are a rarity in this modern era.
John leaves a daughter, Catharine, a college lecturer in photography, and five grandchildren. His son, Andrew, sadly died prematurely in 2017. His wife, Louie, also predeceased him. He retained devoted friends and family back in England, whom he continued to visit annually.
On 21 May 2022 there will be a celebration of John’s life held at Victory Memorial Park in South Surrey. His family requests that those wishing to remember his legacy consider a donation to Surrey Hospitals Foundation.
—Brian Day, MB
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